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How to buy an emergency incident-management system

Look for these six features when adding technology to incident management, especially for large-scale incidents


The use of computer technology for managing emergency incidents is fast becoming a necessary tool in an incident commander's toolbox. Call it Incident Management Tools 2.0 as these technologies are replacing paper charts and forms, white boards and tag-based systems — Tools 1.0.

When I first learned to use the Incident Command System, my instructors always stressed that "you have to use ICS on every incident to become skilled and practiced in its application. It's not something where you wait for the 'big one' to use it because in all likelihood you won't use it."

The same goes for incident management software and apps. If a system is user-friendly, your personnel will become highly proficient users. Then, when faced with the big one — that incident that brings out multiple departments and outside agencies — everyone knows how to use the system.

Look for systems with these six basic features to greatly increase the probability that they will use the system on a daily basis.

1. Accurately track and manage resources
A system should enables the incident commander to assign an incident task to a unit with just a few screen taps or mouse clicks. The system should also have a summary screen where the commander can view and track all assignments.

2. Assignment templates
The system should enable you to set up templates for those incident types that your department routinely responds to like single-family and multi-family structure fires, motor vehicle crashes, small commercial occupancy fires, etc.

Those templates should include ready-to-use task shortcuts so that the commander can easily assign tasks and know that critical details are being tracked automatically.

3. Running clocks
The system should provide incident commanders with running clocks to track elapsed time on the incident so they can make time-critical command decisions and track critical information such as the crew's air consumption and building collapse concerns.

4. Incident log with time stamps
With this feature, the incident commander's task assignments to units and incident benchmarks — all clear, water on the fire, loss stopped, etc. — are recorded automatically and saved to the incident log with a time stamp. This feature alone will help the commander to eliminate frustrating hours back at their desk after the incident documenting important details.

A comprehensive and detailed incident log can also aid in creating more informative and educational post-incident reports that can be used for a multitude of purposes.

5. Access to pre-incident plan
You know how valuable incident and event pre-incident planning information can be for safe, effective and efficient incident management. So why not have access to that data from your system's command screen?

Look for a system that provides quick access and the ability to create custom fields, map tools, file attachments, ICS forms and checklist capabilities based on your needs. This makes for easier upkeep, doesn't require paper and the information can be accessed from any of the department's computers and mobile devices.

6. Map-based command board
The ability to create and use map-based command board allows the incident commander to view resources geographically, as well as mapping layers, and other situational awareness data.

The tech landscape
Back in the early days of computer technology for the fire service — I'm talking about the early 1990s — a rule of thumb said that one calendar year was equal to seven technology years. It's probably now more like 10-plus years.

Case in point: In 2005 practically nobody had WiFi in their home, yet in 2013 almost 80 percent of respondents to a Pew Research survey reported having home WiFi.

In 2016, one of the fastest growing tech sectors is software designed to make emergency incident managers more effective and efficient and incident operations safer. One of the biggest developments within that space has been cloud-based systems that can turn any desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone into a digital command board.

Cloud-based systems for incident management require no special hardware, don't require a degree in IT to set up and are relatively easy for end-users to learn. Cloud-based systems are compatible with Mac, Windows, iPhone and Android operating systems.

Cloud-based systems maintain security for information and communications using the system through a redundant server environment with automatic failover. Consider systems whose developers use bit data encryption (SSL) and monitor their servers all day, every day.

A plus would be a developer that works with industry-leading data center and security partners. You can have a higher degree of confidence that the system you choose will keep up with technology security advancements.

Interface ready
Look for developers who have existing partnerships with industry leading vendors because the technology landscape is ever changing and nobody has all the answers to future questions.

Your department likely has many sources of information useful for incident management. That can include information from your computer-aided dispatch system, your records management system, pre-incident planning information, your scheduling system, etc.

The incident management system you choose should be able to integrate that information seamlessly and without an inordinate amount of time and cost.

When it's all said and done, you want a system that provides a tool that improves how you take care of the problem at hand — whether it's putting out the fire or treating and transporting the injured.

Incident management technology really shines when it increases the incident commanders' capabilities to do a better job managing large-scale incidents. It is useful for developing and managing the more comprehensive and detailed incident action plan needed.

It also helps keep track of greater numbers of on-scene personnel and their assignments through its personnel accountability system. This is particularly true when the response includes mutual-aid departments or outside allied agencies.

It aids in managing the increased logistical needs for the incident such as, specialized equipment, supply caches, rehabilitation areas, and communications hardware that are commonly required for large-scale incidents.

In addition to the equipment, these systems help manage the communications stream, which typically entails more than just radio communications with firefighters and officers. This involves keeping the outside world informed about what's happened, what's continuing to happen and the plan to resolve the incident; it will include local and state government officials, news media outlets and social media platforms.

In short, the 2.0 version of incident management technology is a serious upgrade over its clunky predecessor. 

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